After stunning audiences last year at the show's European premiere, the thrilling turn-of-the-century Circus 1903 looks set to dazzle audiences around the country once more, ending with a Christmas engagement at the Royal Festival Hall. Showcasing world-class acts from around the globe as well as puppet elephants from the award-winning team behind War Horse, it combines the Golden Age of circus with cutting-edge performances for a variety show like no other.
Rehearsing at the Royal Opera House's High House Production Park in Purfleet to accommodate the size of the Wheel of Death - a new segment for 2019 - ringmaster Willy Whipsnade (as played by David Williamson) shared how the company of circus acts and performers come together at all parts of the show's life,from rehearsals to being on stage. Hailing from a magic background, he made it clear how circus folk rely on everyone being at their best: "We're all just cogs in a big performing machine. Nobody has a big career in a circus by being a great individual act. It’s one big family and it’s a tight-knit, intense experience that I’ve never had before. We’re all up in each other’s business all the time!"
But how do you learn that you're going to have a career in the circus? Talking to the show's associate director Richard Peakman, he stresses how it takes a "lifetime dedicated to their performance styles" to truly master circus skills, with some of the billed acts being "fifth and sixth-generations of circus families, so they’re just born into it from the moment they’re toddling around the living room!"
"Being a performer in the circus is in their bloodline" for acts in Circus 1903; it's almost like an inheritance gift for younger generations of circus families to follow in the footsteps of their older family members.
A highlight of last year's big-top funat the Royal Festival Hall, David spoke fondly of the highwire artists who hailed from Mexico: "While they were on the highwire on stage, their children were in the wings, constantly practicing their circus skills. The circus came before homework for them and being on stage is part of their DNA. To them, the circus is their family business".
But It's not just high-flying acts and performing families to marvel over in Circus 1903. There's also Queenie and Peanut, a pair of circus elephants that come to life in the show by a team of puppeteers including Chris Milford, whoadmits he doesn't "come from a circus background", instead pursuing a career in puppetry and musical theatre. But it's the way that circus artists dedicate themselves to their art that's inspired Chris: "They're constantly trying to do something new. There’s a healthy competition between them all and they push each other to be the best they can be."
With big tops up and down the country year-round, as well as the variety of Christmas shows in London, Richard spoke of the show's simple approach being key to making Circus 1903stand out. "The beauty of our show is that it takes it back to basics. It takes away the modern technology that we’re saturated with; films like The Greatest Showman has put traditional circus back on the radar."
"At the heart of the show, it's breathtaking acts that anyone can appreciate," said Richard, a sentiment that cast members and creative team all agreed with.